Space and Memory

By Victor H. Matthews
Missouri State University
June 2013

Memory of place adheres to our consciousness and provides a framework for how we react when that memory is triggered. Events, persons, and places become a part of a mental map that helps to guide large portions of our everyday actions and sometimes without warning transport us on a virtual journey back in time. Landmarks also are captured in memory and form the basis for commemoration activities. Interestingly, when memory is tied to discrete space, it can store the only remaining link to locations that have been drastically transformed by nature or by humans. Even if it is no longer recognizable to persons who once lived and worked there, as long as memory lasts that place is never truly lost. That may be why politicians, ministers, and civic leaders make good use of space to enhance their own authority, to call provide the basis for the use of particular locations, or to perpetuate local traditions or history. Of course, it is possible to manipulate these memories to serve their own purposes, but sometimes it helps to keep a good story alive.

It is clear that space is defined by the repetition of social activities – whether they be domestic, sacred, or official role. Then that space is encapsulated into the collective memory of a household or the entire creating a sort of “mental map” of its physical features and ways in which it has been used. Of course, that original mental image functions in different ways for different audiences or individuals through time. Later “users” of this space may simply mimic the original event(s) performed in that space because that has always been its function. However, over time a place may be subtly modified to include past and present associations that combine to both memorize and to magnify the importance or utility of that particular space. What I intend to do here demonstrate how space can initially be part of mundane human activity and interaction, and then become through memory of those past events a much more powerful and authoritative place.

Transformation of Space and the Manipulation of Memory

If a defined area of space such as a threshing floor, with recognizable borders or dimensions that has developed distinctive associations of occupancy or use by previous groups is deemed serviceable as the proper place another facility, then both physical and social transformation can commence. When it functioned as a threshing floor and was used as an agricultural installation, it eventually developed additional social functions as a gathering place in which both business and legal matters could be discussed and finalized (see Ruth 3). However, when the threshing floor ceased to be used for its original purpose and was repurposed for use as a city gate (see 1 Kgs 22:10), then the memory its former associations are added to its new function. In this way the leaders and planners of the city obtain greater authority when they perform tasks or hold events in that place because of the memories of its past.

With this in mind, let us consider the story of David’s census and it climax that takes place on Araunah’s threshing floor, located near Jerusalem. While it was still a working facility, the theophany that takes place here will transform it from a mundane agricultural installation into sacred space suitable for the construction of a temple to Yahweh. In both versions of this account (2 Sam 24 and 1 Chron 21—22), the threshing floor becomes the nexus point for a crisis in David’s reign and the memory of these events will reformulate both that place and subsequent political events. While two versions of the story contain marked difference, in both David undertakes a census and the result is a divinely imposed punishment.1 The resultant crisis comes to a head when the plague angel halts on God’s command when it reaches the threshing floor of Araunah (2 Sam 24:16; 1 Chron 21:15-17).

The theophany, as it does in the story of Moses and burning bush on Mt. Sinai (Exod 3:2-5), triggers the redefinition of mundane space into sacred space. However, in order to associate David’s House with that place and set the stage for its eventual use as the site of Solomon’s temple, a further story component is added. The prophet Gad order David to purchase the threshing floor and use it as the platform for a sacrificial altar (24:18; compare 1 Chron 21:18-19). The subsequent transactional dialogue between David and Araunah (vv. 20-24) is reminiscent of the bartering process between Abraham and Ephron the Hittite when the ancestor purchased the Cave of Machpelah as the burial site for his wife Sarah (Gen 23:3-20). The reuse of stories just like the reuse of place creates a web of social memory. Both function as a means of demonstrating proper behavior in an honor-shame-based society and linking space to seminal pieces of national tradition.

Most critical to both Abraham’s story and David’s theophany on the threshing floor of Araunah is the fact that both involve the transformation of place through payment (compare Omri’s purchase of Shemer’s property in 1 Kgs 16:24). It is essential that the purchaser pay “full price” as set by the owner so that there can be no future question of the transfer of ownership. With that determined the space can be redefined legally, reused for new social purposes, and become subject to the development of new traditions by its new owner(s).2

Although space that once functioned as the site for particular actions or events can lose that original purpose and be redefined by sale, by new construction, by the destruction of existing structures, or by the reshaping of the space’s social role, it can also retain the memory of its original characteristics. Over time that original spatial character may be manipulated by conscious efforts to eliminate past associations (see Gideon’s destruction of the Baal altar in Judg 6:27-32). Or, its original purposing can continue to spark the imagination, keeping at least a memory of past associations and tying them to current usage.

That in turn suggests that space and the way it is perceived is fluid. In fact, every encounter with space, whatever its configuration, causes it to be shaped and reshaped. Every social act places new meaning on that space. Every memory produced by social interaction in that space leaves a mental residue of remembrance attached to space. Since space is malleable, it is flexible in character and is available as a link to the past and a key component in the production of social space in the future.


1 See Paul Evans, “Divine Intermediaries in 1 Chronicles 21: an Overlooked Aspect of the Chronicler's Theology,” Biblica 85/4 (2004), 545-57.

2 See Victor H. Matthews, “Physical Space, Imagined Space, and ‘Lived Space’ in Ancient Israel,” BTB 33 (2003), 13-14.

Comments (4)

I really can't follow this. If you say that everyone tends to remember places where important things have happened to them, I'm sure that's true but it's hardly surprising and hardly seems to throw much light on the Bible. Where things not so plainly true are said those things are quite questionable, I would respectfully say. Payment, even payment in full, does not preclude future transfers of ownership, considered to be legitimate: look at the housing market. Nor even future destruction, considered by the destroyers to be legitimate: Omri's purchase of Samaria did not impress John Hyrcanus that much.

#1 - Martin - 06/19/2013 - 20:22

I agree with Martin. What is the focus here? After all all of Mathhews' memories are parts of a book. They are written memories--cultural memories if you like. But I cannot see through the spin here: Are we talking about a real World or a World imagined by biblical writers?

It is a fair assumption that memory to 95% of the population in ancient Palestine (using the term as understood by Aristotle who reckons the Dead Sea as part of Palestine) was locally fixated and not common to more than the people living is a certain limited area. Mobility was not high, except in some professional circles (tradesmen, soldiers, a few intellectuels). No memory tourism at all.

Araunah's treshing floor may on the other hand be an indication of something that made it into writing: The holiness tradition of Jerusalem that may not always have demanded a city standing Next to the holy place, or the presence of a standing temple. That may be the reason why the status as holy was not dependent on the status of the city, whether it was there at a certain time or lay in ruins. Worth investigating.

The cultural memory we are presented with in the Bible is not common memory from ancient times; it is the cultural memory constructed by an intellectual elite, and for an intellectual elite and those who wanted to listen. It was also a story told to other people (perhaps as Assmann has argued in connection with religious festivals) in the usual sense of history as a weapon of mass instruction.

We should, however, not forget that when we are studying ancient literature and art, we are in fact studying ouselves as belonging to the same Group that created this litterature and this art.

Niels Peter Lemche

#2 - Niels Peter Lemche - 07/03/2013 - 09:19

The point I was attempting to make with this abbreviated version of a longer piece I published (“Remembered Space in Biblical Narrative,” in Mark George, ed. Constructions of Space IV: Further Developments in Examining Social Space in Ancient Israel [New York: T & T Clark International, 2013], 61-75) is that the memories associated with place play a part in how a biblical narrative is composed, edited, and told. It does not matter whether “elites” are the authors and the primary audience for these stories. It is the collective memory associated with a particular place, added to over the years and embellished with the political/theological spin of the storyteller that makes them significant (see my piece: “Back to Bethel: Geographical Reiteration in Biblical Narrative,” Journal of Biblical Literature 128 [2009], 151-67). For instance, it does matter that Ahab and Jehoshaphat sit on their thrones in the gate of Samaria, which was constructed on what had once been a threshing floor. They and the scribes responsible for recording this event in the narrative in 1 Kgs 22:9-12 would have been aware of the site’s previous history and the social importance of both gate and threshing floor as places where law and business are traditionally conducted.

#3 - Victor H. Matthews - 07/04/2013 - 15:12

OK, then we are not very far from each other.

One thing will be the memories attached to certain Places (really Nora's lieux des mémoires) by visitors, another thing is what happened when such memories were put into writings. Then it will soon be a discussion about dating texts, really an almost hopeless enterprise today.

One thing for sure: Memories accumulate. We don't know if Ahab ever sat on a throne in the gate of Samaria (I am not saying that he did not), but stories were told about him sitting there. It could be someone else, the story precedes the names of the actors (one of the old epic Laws of Olrik). The problems with memory is the same as the problem of oral tradition (after all more or less the same) are that it cannot be controlled.

It would definitely be a worthwhile task to make a catalogue of Places of remembrance in the Bible, and of the people and events attached to such Places.

Niels Peter Lemche

#4 - Niels Peter Lemche - 07/05/2013 - 07:17

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